Our legal aid system is crumbling and it needs drastic action to save it

Our legal aid system is crumbling and it needs drastic action to save it

There are millions of people denied the right to a safe home because of the housing emergency. Sky high rents are forcing people to live in damp, cold and mouldy homes, worried that if they complain they could be evicted.  

Hundreds of thousands of people are homeless with nowhere safe to call home. The housing emergency is ruining lives, and our crumbling legal aid system means that too many families have nowhere to turn to enforce their rights and get a safe and secure home. 

When a renter is facing an unlawful eviction, they ought to have the right to challenge it in court. When a person living on the street is shrugged off, or refused help from the council, they should have the right to challenge unlawful behaviour. When your family is stuck living in cramped and unsuitable temporary accommodation, moving around for years on end you should be able to question if the council is doing its legal duty to find a permanent home.  

But cuts to legal aid have left people in these situations with nowhere to turn to get timely and important advice from providers like Shelter. And its driving up homelessness.   

Legal aid can stop people becoming homeless 

Access to legal aid and early advice can be the difference between a safe home and homelessness. We are in the middle of a housing emergency and people need advice and legal representation to help them tackle their housing issues now more than ever.  

Shelter’s advice services are overwhelmed. We cannot keep up with the demand from those in need. Shelter and other charities cannot plug a gap which is caused by a failing legal aid system. Legal aid is unsustainable even for the not for profit sector and there aren’t enough of us to go around to provide the level of legal advice needed.  

We have a duty to ensure that the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in society can access the advice and legal representation to help enforce their housing rights. A vulnerable tenant shouldn’t have to stand in front of a judge, in court, completely alone, while their landlord’s lawyers are pressing for them to be evicted. If you can’t afford a lawyer, you should be able to access legal aid to fight for housing justice. 

There is growing pressure to reform legal aid 

Earlier this year the Justice Select Committee published a report setting out a comprehensive suite of recommendations, from bringing back funding for social welfare cases to a more flexible approach in granting legal aid. 

In September the Community Justice Fund published a report demonstrating the economic benefits to society of providing free legal advice. And on Tuesday this week, the Westminster Commission on legal aid published a 95-page damning report about the state of our legal aid system with key recommendations to: 

  • ensure the legal aid sector is sustainable for providers 
  • increase legal aid scope to encourage a holistic advice approach restoring housing disrepair advice which was pushed out of legal aid scope in 2013 
  • ensure the means review enables people without means are not prevented from accessing justice 
  • increase capacity of providers to provide free legal advice 
  • enable access to judicial review cases to challenge decisions made by local authorities and the state 

The creaking legal aid system is ruining lives  

In less than 10 years the number of legal aid providers has reduced by almost 35%. The Law Society recently published a shocking report with a map showing how in 40% of areas in England and Wales, there is no access to a legal aid provider at all.

Access to legal aid has become a postcode lottery. If you’re unlucky enough to live in an area where there is no advice provision, you may have to travel huge distances to try and access it. Even where there are legal aid providers, the urgent housing need of many people cannot be met. 

And fewer and fewer people are eligible for legal aid, thanks to outdated ‘means tests’ which haven’t risen in line with inflation over the last 20 years. Many people in desperate situations are essentially considered not poor enough to need legal aid. The government is now reviewing these, but the damage has already been done for too many people.  

The inadequate legal aid system is impacting the vulnerable in society including their access to housing justice. We can and must do better than this.  

As noted in the report from the Westminster Commission:

‘It [legal aid] benefits society as a whole, not just those who are direct users, and we are a better society for it’ 

It’s time to call for change and support the call made by the Commission and others to rebuild our broken legal aid system.